Monday, July 31, 2017

The Dostoevsky of the Southern Plains: On the Work of B.H. Fairchild

B.H. Fairchild’s roots are in three states of what was once known as the “Great American Desert.” He was born in Houston in 1942, and grew up in small towns in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Fairchild stayed in the region for his education, with degrees from the University of Kansas and the University of Tulsa. His experiences on the plains – work in his father’s lathe shop, high school football, hardscrabble living – are at the core of his, mostly narrative, poetry. His poems are full of the oilfield workers and wheat farmers that make up so much of the region’s population. But Fairchild’s relationship to the plains is deeper than just subject matter. The landscape of the southern plains – its unique combination of expansiveness and sparseness – becomes in Fairchild’s work a particular kind of poetics, both maximalist and chiseled, emotionally rich but also reticent. This poetics, as it has developed over the last thirty years, is on full display in this volume of “new and selected” poems.

            Among prominent contemporary poets, Fairchild stands out for his commitment to narrative verse. Although what the critic Stephen Burt has called “elliptical” poetry – characterized by indirectness, an emphasis on suggestion rather than clarity – dominates much current poetry, Fairchild continues to write in the tradition of Robert Frost, offering the pleasures of good-story telling without compromising the pleasure of poetic craft. The long, roughly hexameter lines that dominate in Fairchild’s poetics are flexible and conversational enough to carry a story along, a technique adopted most likely from Frost’s reinvention of blank verse as a casual, even folksy medium.

One example of Fairchild’s great talent for narrative verse is the poem “Body and Soul,” perhaps his best known poem from what is probably his best book, The Art of the Lathe. The poem tells a simple story of an amateur baseball game in Oklahoma in the 1940’s, as remembered by a group of old men a generation older than the poet. One player short, the opposing team suggests that they can continue the game if no one objects to a fifteen-year-old kid joining in. The kid turns out to be Mickey Mantle, and, not surprisingly, the home team loses. Again, this is a simple story, but Fairchild’s genius emerges through the detail accompanying the narrative and through the deeply human significance he is able to draw from it. The poem begins with an image of the men drinking “bourbon and Coke from coffee mugs,” a detail almost startling in the accuracy of its observation. The lives of the men are apparent in their “little white rent houses,” in their “broken Kenmores,” and in “the free calendar from the local mortuary / that said one day was pretty much like another, the work gloves / looped over the doorknob like dead squirrels.” The details suggest lives marred by drabness and dreariness, but there is also a dignity to these men who choose to continue pitching to Mantle rather than simply walking him to save the game. They choose, as Fairchild says, to save “some ragged remnant of themselves to take back home.” “But there is one thing more,” he adds. The men have been forever changed by encountering “the vast gap between talent and genius.” This insight from the poet elevates the narrative from the level of amusing anecdote to the level of universal significance. It becomes a story about men meeting their own limitations, coming to know their own relative smallness, and living on with that difficult truth. This is a very human story.

            Fairchild, who is also a scholar of William Blake, frequently writes poems that explore the ways in which the transcendent – the spiritual, the numinous – breaks through into the mundane. He is a visionary poet, and, while this visionary aspect in his work has roots in the mystical strand of the Western tradition, it is encouraged by the landscape of the southern plains – by the vastness of the ground and the prominence of the sky – a landscape that puts one in constant contact with the eternal. In “Angels, ” from his first book, The Arrival of the Future, a kid home from college, “hauling a load of Herefords / from Hogtown to Guymon,” sees “four flaming angels crouched on the hood, wings  / spread so wide he couldn’t see,” before he crashes and ends up in the hospital. In the later poem, “Airlifting Horses,” ordinary horses become the archetypal Pegasus as they are rescued by helicopter from a brushfire, and “the earth they rod a thousand days or more / falls away in hunks of brown and yellow.” Fairchild’s poems are often about reclaiming a true vision of the world’s holiness, the hidden, dimmed but ever-present wonder of creation.

            The best example of Fairchild’s unique vision is “Beauty,” also from The Art of the Lathe. The poem is a good example of Fairchild’s fascination with American masculinity and its relationship to the numinous:

                        We are at the Bargello in Florence, and she says,

                        what are you thinking? And I say, beauty, thinking

                        of how very far we are now from the machine shop

                        and the dry fields of Kansas, the treeless horizons

                        of slate skies and the muted passions of roughnecks

                        and scrabble farmers drunk and romantic enough

                        to weep more or less silently at the darkened end

                        of the bar out of, what else, loneliness, meaning

                        the ache of thwarted desire, of, in a word, beauty,

                        or rather its absence, and it occurs to me again

                        that no male member of my family has ever used

                        this word in my hearing or anyone else’s except

                        in reference, perhaps, to a new pickup or dead deer.

From this beginning, Fairchild goes on to weave a fugue involving “rural TV in 1963,” a tap-dancing uncle from California, work in a machine shop, J.F.K.’s assassination, exhibitionists, and Donatello’s David. It is one of Fairchild’s longest poems, and his most clear insistence on the disruptive value of beauty, its ability to break into the mundane world and reveal itself as always already present. As in the work of many mystics, beauty for Fairchild seems always only inches away from suffering.

            Fairchild sees beauty, even holiness, in the sorts of people others might be tempted to brand as “losers.” He is a Dostoevsky of the southern plains. One of the best poems from his first book is “The Woman at the Laundromat Crying ‘Mercy’.” The poem ends simply with “In back, / the change machine has jammed and a woman / beats it with her fist, crying mercy, mercy.” There is more than a hint of both the beatific in general and the beatitudes in particular in this image. The later poem, “Old Men Playing Basketball,” ends “Boys rise up in old men, wings begin to sprout / at their backs. The ball turns in the darkening air.” Fairchild looks at desperate women in laundromats and men long past their physical prime and offers a vision that is a form of redemption, a way of seeing the world the way it could be and, according to Christian eschatology, will be. In “Rave On,” a bored teenager driven to entertain himself by deliberately wrecking cars resurfaces years later in a monastery. In the much later “Getting Fired,” a man, addressed in the poem in the second person, returns home after losing his job:

                        Your friend has her hand on the small

                        of your back, and you are feeling better now.

                        The voice of a woman who knew more pain

                        than any ten professors sings of love gone

                        wrong and the grace that follows loss.

                        The changes in a twelve-bar blues are open

                        doors to her, every chord a new way out.

                        On a diminished seventh love, she says, love,

                        and you pull the blinds, and begin to dance again.

This is a form of grace without a hint of cheapness in it. Maybe this view of things is “mystical.” Maybe it’s just a way of seeing that has kept generations of people sane through hard life on the plains.

            The prominence of oil-field workers, horses, and plains in Fairchild’s poems may tempt us to call him a “western writer,” but, with his poems also full of classical music, renaissance art, and high philosophy, he is as well a western writer in the sense of having inherited the high cultural traditions of the western world.  In this he is like several other prominent poets of the southern plains, particularly Carter Revard and Jim Barnes. It is important to note, however, that Fairchild’s poems travel to Europe the way most of us do, temporarily or only in the books we read. In “A Roman Grave,” the poet observes “the long cars of the Romanovs” that “move quietly  as clouds to line the curb / of the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile,” and reflects on “[a] Europe of confusions, history’s scattered / flocks mumbling unintelligible prayers.” Further on in the poem “he watches diggers on the Thames’ / south side haul up rocks from a Roman grave,” and thinks about the layers of history represented by the “[s]trata piled like quilts beside the small pits,” before concluding that “[t]he dead in their stone sleep are roused into // history.” The poet remains the outside observer, the American marveling at the layers of the past in Europe, the man in the museum, as in “Beauty.” Fairchild perhaps comes closer to the European tradition with his reoccurring character, Roy Eldridge Garcia, who travels to France and becomes a sort of French bohemian poet. Fairchild even writes several poems in the voice of Garcia, prose poems clearly indebted to Baudelaire and Rimbaud. But Garcia comes home: the last of Garcia’s prose poems is dated “Liberal, Kansas, 1960.” In Fairchild’s southwest, boys hauling cattle carry copies of Rilke. This mixture of high and lower is perhaps most pronounced in his 2009 book, Usher, which draws heavily on the work of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. The effect of all this mixing of “high” and “low” culture, however, isn’t a cloying, second-rate Wasteland. One gets the impression, rather, that behind the poems is a real mind, the mind of a boy from the southern plains who found, at times, little to do with himself other than to visit the library.

            After reading The Blue Buick, I am tempted to say that Fairchild is the great poet of the southern plains. But perhaps that would be hyperbolic. There are, of course, others, and there will no doubt be more. Fairchild, however, should be considered the unofficial, yet permanent, poet laureate of the southern plains. No other poet I can think of so perfectly captures what life is like here and does it with such artistic integrity and clarity of vision. 

Thursday, July 27, 2017

I recently read Joe Weil’s fantastic collection A Night in Duluth. I highly recommend it. Here’s a piece I wrote a few years back on Joe’s volume of New and Selected Poems. Unfortunately, the periodical I was developing it for shut its doors before it was published. So, I offer it here, a little late but better than never.

Joe Weil. The Great Grandmother Light: New and Selected Poems. New York Quarterly Books, 2013.

            I’m driving north on Oklahoma Highway 18 with Joe Weil in the passenger seat and his wife and infant daughter in the back. Joe is pointing out all the commonalities between central Oklahoma and his neck of the woods, New Jersey: the invasive eastern cedars, the red-tinted dirt, the working poor. He’s come 1400 miles to read at my little university just because he’s always wanted to see Oklahoma and even though he’s certainly losing money on the trip. Our previous acquaintance consists of sharing a publisher – NYQ Books – and a Facebook friendship, the highlight of which was Joe’s advice about a cracked engine block in my old car (it turned out not to be a cracked engine block). Nevertheless, here he is, tooling up highway 18, getting the grand tour of my homeland, talking about how much he has enjoyed meeting the students at our little college, smiling, gesturing excitedly: because he’s open and generous like that. He’s big-hearted like that. He is completely present, very incarnated like that. And his poems share all these qualities, which is why you should read his new and selected poems, The Great Grandmother Light.
            Like Joe himself, Weil’s poems don’t shy away from showing emotion. In “Adelino” he talks about “Wolf songs,” songs that “could / pull down a man and feed on his heart,” an image that conveys well the emotional power of many of the poems in this book. The poem “Fists,” for instance, is a moving account of the poet’s complex relationship with his father. Rather than offering merely pure, “raw” emotion, however, the poem draws deeper emotional resonance by evoking the tale of Cuchulain’s accidental slaying of his own son:
                        When he woke, it was morning, and the hands of his son
                        Had become two black swans.
                        They flew west where all suffering ends.
                        I read this story
                        And I remember you.
                        Hold me clenched until I am those birds.
                        Sleep now,
                        Until your fists can open.
 Other poems look further beyond the poet’s own experiences, illustrating Joe’s great capacity for empathy as he imagines his way into the lives of people he meets along the way. “An old man tells me about Cuba. / Drunk, he talks of dice/ and mangoes,” begins the poem “At the My Fair Lady Lounge.” In “Dignity” he offers sympathy for the, perhaps inebriated, elderly woman who has just run over a dog. When I praise the empathetic ability of these poems, I mean to praise it not only as an ethical virtue but also as an aesthetic virtue. This empathy opens the poems to a broad range of compelling imagery: for instance, the berated and “perfectly bald husband / swinging his garden hose violently / in futile protest” in “The Poet as a Young Voyeur.” These are big-hearted poems, poems open to the world and to feeling. If a lot of contemporary poems walked into your neighborhood bar and sat down next to you, you’d probably get up and leave. You could smell the narcissism and claustrophobic creepiness. I would, however, like to buy a beer for any number of poems by Joe Weil.
            Joe’s reputation is as a “working class poet,” and you will certainly find many poems in The Great Grandmother Light drawing on factory work and life on the economic margins of middle-class America. But the collection also adds nuance and complication to the “working class poet” label. These poems are often intellectual and always well-read. They bear particularly clear influence from the American avant-garde and from the French surrealism that in turn influenced it. For instance, in the early poem “Prelude” he tells us “this is my hand, / writhing into the void, / pulling up rabbits, / the beloved dead.” In the much later prose poem “Green Light” we are made to understand that “the voice of the midnight universe is always vaguely Southern” and that “pain calcifies in the heart, how great cathedrals in the cave of someone’s closed eyes are being formed – drop by drop, on the limestone walls of trout streams, in the caves of Kentucky.” Consistently Weil displays his awareness that poetry is and should be a strange thing. Unlike many other poets aiming for a working class ethos, he doesn’t achieve his accessibility and relevance by sacrificing surprise and playfulness. He doesn’t mistake mere mundanity for authenticity. Joe is not some hipster in a work shirt who has read a bit of Whitman and a few poems by Philip Levine, trying to make “working class” a marketable niche. He’s a real poet whose context happens to be working class and who knows, like Charles Dickens and Frank O’Hara knew, that his context, his world, is the great subject he has been given and to which he must fashion his own stylistic response. “I, too, grew up in this neighborhood,” he says in “Variations on a Theme by Isaiah,” after encountering a particularly unpleasant “little bastard” in his old neighborhood. But the ending of the poem illustrates how these poems do more that simply recount “gritty realities,” the go-to move for lesser poets looking to distinguish themselves from the middle-class crowd coming out of the MFA workshops. When Weil writes “God bless that angry little shit. / God bless this angry little shit. / This, too, is a poem of praise,” he displays an authenticity beyond simple “street cred,” a genuine desire to see eternity and redemption in his own specific, concrete world.
            Mention of eternity and redemption brings me to the heart of this book, because Joe’s poems constantly ache with an awareness of the sacred, though they never look for sacredness in the never-never lands of always elsewheres or not-yet-but-somedays of lesser religious poetry. Joe’s sacred is the Catholic sacred of the sacramental, of the holy entering this world and changing it while not changing it. In the early poem “Morning at the Elizabeth Arch” poetic vision itself is a form of redemption:
            The winos rise as beautiful as deer.
            Look how they stagger from their sleep
            as if the morning were a river
            against which they contend.
                        . . .
            At river’s edge, the deer stand poised.
            One breaks the spell of his reflection
            with a hoof and, struggling,
            begins to cross.
The winos are both themselves and deer, as the bread is both bread and the body of Christ. The look is our invitation to take and eat. “While the World is Falling Apart, I Open a Jar of Pickles” is another fine example, a poem in which incense is replaced by “the fragrant scent of pickling / spices wafting over” the poet. Joe invests a simple, humble, and homely act with the spiritual power of sacrament, “opening a jar against all evils, the / stupid deaths, and illnesses, and failures.” This sacrament is an act of desperation and trust that makes him, to adapt Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:3, like a little child, or, to put it in Joe’s own terms, “a little boy in the near dark, bare foot / against the scarred linoleum.” The “near dark” is clearly more than a dimly lit kitchen and more than the linoleum has been or will be scarred. But, he says, “If you slice these thin enough / the veil becomes translucent.” This image literalizes holy light shining through the things of this world. Auden has taught us that “the crack in the tea-cup opens / a lane to the land of the dead,” but this is the only poem I know of in which spiritual reality is revealed by means of a pickle. It’s a strange sacrament – aren’t they all? – but it’s enough. His heart, which had earlier beat out in defiance – “fuck it all, fuck it all” – now beats in submission to an invisible order, to a knowledge of its own child-like dependence: “My heart is the only justice. It is strong. / It will do its job. It will knock and knock / until the door is opened.” This is not cheap grace or glib Jesus talk. It is a few simple words on the virtue of life rafts, penned by a man who has been far out to sea.
            Back on Highway 18, Joe is telling me about his childhood, its imaginative joys and emotional suffering. He is telling me about how happy he is to be fulfilling his dream of visiting Oklahoma, wide open spaces for his wide open heart and his wide open poems. Joe Weil is a man who, as Montaigne said of himself, is “consubstantial with” his book, or perhaps transubstantial, like those winos and deer. In the devastatingly tender – yes, I said “devastatingly tender” – “About Light,” young Joe, who has just asked his mother “why are the traffic lights more red when it snows,” is told, “keep yourself a secret. / People will spit on you.” Praise be to God that Joe does not follow that well-meant advice.